Photos by Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com
This is Part 1 of a series of articles offering advice to players on the steps necessary to create a championship caliber Ultimate team in their area.
When spectators see an established elite team in action, they are looking at the results of a long building process – a process that can take years, involving a great deal of behind the scenes effort and a whole lot of patience. The memory of what it took to build the championship team is often lost by the time the third generation of players is in place. But rest assured, it is possible to build a world champion team from scratch.
First, the bad news: players desiring to play for a championship team should look elsewhere. The best bet for a chance to play with a championship team is to travel to a city where there already is a team and show up for the combine. There’s nothing wrong with this. The Ultimate universe is full of journeyman players. If instead, the goal is a local team and the founders have altruism in their souls, they can build for the future – not for theirs but maybe for that of their little sister or maybe their child.
The first step in building a powerhouse team is community outreach.
At this year’s club championships in Sarasota, I ran across a University of Central Florida alumnus who had come down from Orlando to volunteer. Since UCF is my alma mater, I stopped to chat with him. During the course of that conversation, the question of why the Orlando area hasn’t produced championship teams came up. My immediate response was that the area doesn’t have an elite team because the area doesn’t produce enough elite players. It was a simple answer with a complicated and deep meaning. While an established elite team can draw players from great distances, a new team can only draw from the local population. Someone in the community must take on the challenge to build an infrastructure that supports championship development.
We’re fortunate here in Seattle because we have DiscNW. DiscNW organizes leagues, hosts tournaments, posts a list of pick-up games, and holds clinics. A significant portion of it’s efforts goes directly into outreach to school-aged kids. This work is in addition to the efforts of the dedicated people at USA Ultimate and WFDF. This level of effort did not happen overnight. 25+ years ago, when I played competitively, DiscNW was in its infancy. There was one league with maybe 12 teams. There weren’t high school and middle school divisions. There weren’t open, mixed and women’s teams. There wasn’t Spring Reign or Potlatch. It was twelve teams trying to get enough players on the muddy fields to play a game. The success of Ultimate in Seattle is due directly to the efforts of a dedicated group of people building and maintaining the infrastructure that is currently producing so many world class players. The efforts here in Seattle can certainly serve as a model for efforts in any community. I mention Seattle only because it is the environment I am most familiar with. It is not the only viable model for community outreach. The same focus on building the feeder system can be found anywhere where there is a history of local teams performing well on the world stage.
Building the necessary outreach has two parts. The first part is involving all of the local pick-up games and the second is involving the schools. Local pickup is a much underutilized resource for elite teams.
One would think that school outreach was easy. Well geeze, all you gotta do is drop off some flyers, and before you know it the kids will start showing up. In fact, it is incredibly difficult. The difficulty, however, is not particular to Ultimate. Introducing any new sport into the school environment is difficult. The schools’ PE teachers cannot be expected to spread the word. This is because most PE instructors are also coaches. It’s unfair to ask the sports coaches at any school to advertise a different sport. Coaches already compete amongst themselves for the best athletes. Their job security is tied to their success in the sports they already coach. Asking them to promote another sport is like asking them to cut their own throats. So while they’ll often agree to tell their kids, they are unlikely to actually do so. For the same reason, it is also difficult to work with the school Athletic Directors. They are supportive in introducing new sports, but they rely on the PE teachers to do the actual information dissemination.
The school administration should be directly approached for support. Before that can be done, though, the approval of the local school district office is necessary. With all the craziness going on with protecting our youth, be prepared for multiple meetings, letters, and background checks. Trust me; I have firsthand experience with the process.
There will also need to be a field available at the school. The kids won’t travel for a new sport. It needs to right there at the school. Ultimate will be competing for field space with soccer, football, baseball, softball, track and the marching band. A little patience goes a long way here.
After all this, there will need to be enough players for a game when the kids show. In my experience, maybe one or two new kids will show up each day. If there aren’t enough players for a game each time the kids show, they’ll be lost.
This segues nicely to the next community outreach requirement: involvement with local pickup teams. Pickup is the backbone of Ultimate. It always has been and it always will be. Before there was any league, there was pickup. And then when there was enough pickup, there evolved a league, and from that league administration there grew an advocacy group. And from that advocacy group came more leagues, clinics, tournaments, and general promotion of the sport. All of this is good, but it comes with a cost. Leagues cost money, clinics cost money, and tournaments cost money. Plus, players need to travel to a central area. In a way, it defeats the purpose of Ultimate. For many players, pickup is the only way to go.
Pickup Ultimate is by its very nature a bit erratic. This erratic nature is the primary reason that most elite players are discouraged from playing open pickup. There’s the belief that a mix of skilled and unskilled players is dangerous. However, it is not the unskilled players who make for the erratic nature of the game, but rather it is the undisciplined players who cause the problems. I’ve seen very well-played games with novice players and I’ve seen some truly awful games with players who know better. The most remarkable thing I’ve seen, though, is what happens when skilled (and disciplined) players join a pickup game. Game play suddenly improves and learning happens. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a big deal. Let me explain:
These days I’m a recreational player. Health permitting, I play 2-3 times a week with local pickup games. Dragging my toes as I lay out to catch a disc 8 feet out of bounds and two inches off the deck is no longer part of my bag of tricks. What I have instead is the sense of accomplishment in seeing a young player blossom under my tutelage. There are many others like me out there. We show up at pickup games, we teach the throws, we preach the beauty of the dump-swing. We explain the difference between the home and away side of the field. We do a lot of things. All in all, we work to provide a foundation to the young players in preparation for them in moving on to the next level.
Alas, as I said before, play at the pickup level can be erratic. This presents a dilemma to the newcomers to the sport. They don’t know who to believe. Do they believe the teamwork philosophy espoused by some, or do they learn to revel in the glory of the huck? Both factions seem to present compelling arguments. Elite players can resolve the dilemma simply by showing up, demonstrating proper techniques and philosophies, and vocally supporting the players who are teaching. This whole idea is a win-win scenario. The pickup players learn the most effective styles of play and the elite teams build on their fan base as well as build a larger pool of players from which to draw. This then ties back into the first section of community outreach to school students. The pickup teams can arrange to play at locations near the schools and introduce the kids to Ultimate.
Greatness Over Time
To build a championship team takes time. The quickest path to greatness is to move to an area that already has a team. Forming a team locally requires building an infrastructure capable of creating talented and skilled players. This infrastructure building requires an advocacy group. Advocacy groups arise out of having a large pickup game base. Skilled players sharing their knowledge are a key element in promoting the pickup game. Really, that’s all that has to be done.
Part 2 of Paul’s series covers the different types of players needed for a championship level team.
For more photo coverage of the 2010 Club Championships visit Kevin Leclaire’s UltiPhotos gallery at http://www.UltiPhotos.com/fall_series/2010/nationals.